Liberia: ‘Disappointed’ Firestone Takes Issue With Govt. Officials’ Accusations Amid Workforce Reduction
Monrovia – Firestone Liberia Inc., an indirect subsidiary of Bridgestone Americas Inc., the world’s single largest contiguous natural rubber producing operation and one of the few remaining concessionaires operating in Liberia, has expressed disappointment with recent statements from a number of Liberian officials regarding the company’s plans to reduce its workforce in Liberia due to severe business climate.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
In a statement Tuesday, Firestone which has been in Liberia since 1926, explained that it entered into the ongoing process and discussions with Liberia on a positive note but is surprised at the way things have turned out. “We entered the process in good faith, and is disappointed in recent statements by some government officials alleging the company is not in compliance with the laws of Liberia and obligations under its Concession Agreement,” the company said. “This is especially regrettable considering we are in the middle of a sensitive process to discuss the specifics of the issue with the appropriate parties under the law. As confirmed by outside legal counsel, all actions taken by the company as part of the planned workforce reduction process have been fully compliant with the 2015 Decent Work Act, the company’s concession agreement, and all applicable laws and regulations of the Government of Liberia.”
Firestone says its primary focus and of the senior leadership of its parent company, Bridgestone Americas, is to urgently find meaningful ways to make our business in Liberia sustainable. “The actions being taken are intended to allow Firestone Liberia to remain a core investor in the country. As always, Firestone Liberia remains a committed partner of the people and government of Liberia, with the shared goal of the preservation and enhancement of the country’s natural rubber industry.”
Firestone operations include a fully-funded community infrastructure consisting of housing, schools, clinics and a referral hospital.
Since March, the company has declared a total of 568 employees redundant with hundreds more dismissals expected as it reduces staff.
The company’s parent company has blamed a “severe business climate” in which the value of rubber — used to make tires, hoses, roofing, gloves and condoms — has plummeted 80 percent since its 2011 peak.
In a statement in March, the company said its main aim is “to restore profitability and help ensure long-term competitiveness as quickly as possible.”
In a statement Tuesday, the rubber giant lamented that since June 24, 2020, it has been in a process under the Decent Work Act of 2015 related to a workforce reduction, explaining that while its decision to reduce workforce is always difficult, it was only made after much thought and consideration for affected employees, their dependents and the business.
“Firestone Liberia entered into this process in good faith and is disappointed in recent statements by some government officials alleging the company is not in compliance with the laws of Liberia and obligations under its Concession Agreement. This is especially regrettable considering we are in the middle of a sensitive process to discuss the specifics of the issue with the appropriate parties under the law.”– Firestone Liberia
Said the company: “Firestone Liberia’s unsustainable losses, the ongoing depressed prices in natural rubber, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the global economy, uncontrolled crime and theft, and high overhead costs of the company’s concession agreement, make this workforce reduction critically necessary at this time.”
The company said the action was taken after discussions with a high-level joint working group established by the Office of the President of Liberia. “The objective of the working group was to collaborate on meaningful solutions to help make the Firestone Liberia business sustainable through ongoing difficult economic times.”
The joint working group designated to represent the Government of Liberia include: F. Musah Dean, Minister of Justice, Samuel Tweah, Minister of Finance, Jeanine M. Cooper, Minister of Agriculture, Moses Y. Kollie, Minister of Labor, Mobutu Nyenpan, Minister of Public Works, Charles Bright, Economic Advisor to the President and Archie Bernard, Legal advisor to the president.
The company further explained that in the spirit of cooperation as the negotiations went on, it was mutually agreed by Firestone Liberia, the governmental members of the working group, and representatives of the workers’ union, that the workforce reduction action would be postponed for a 30-day period to accommodate requests for additional information and dialog.
The company cited the Decent Work Act of 2015 which specifies a period of time to work through the legal and detailed aspects of a workforce reduction with the Ministry of Labour, and discuss and negotiate the process with union leadership. Firestone Liberia fully respects this process, and we have hoped that all parties would do the same.
In recent weeks, despite the discussions between the two parties, several Liberian officials led by House Speaker Bhofal Chambers, have been condemning Firestone Liberia’s anticipated action to lay off an additional 374 employees.
In a meeting with Mr. Don Darden, General Manager of the company in Plenary on Tuesday, July 13, 2020, Speaker Chambers compared the company’s decision to reduce its staff to strangulating a helpless person to death, just as in the case of the late George Floyd.
George Floyd, a 46-year-old black American man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020 during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill.
Footage of the arrest on 25 May shows a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck while he was pinned to the floor, as he cried “I can’t breathe.” His death led to widespread condemnation and mass protests in the United States and around the world. “We want it to be a message that you should ceased and desist. The people of Liberia are saying that it is inappropriate to do that now,” the Speaker said in his closing remarks.
The Speaker added: “The issue can be analogous to that of [George] Floyd. It is just like you put the knee to the neck [of a helpless person]. Mr. Darden, in these moments, I think Firestone is under obligation to do something decent for the Liberian people.”
Plenary, acting on a motion from Rep. Acarous Gray, District #8, Montserrado County, prevailed on the company to delay its decision to lay off 374 employees pending the conclusion of its ongoing investigation in the company’s decision. However, Mr. Darden insisted to lawmakers that the decision of the company to cut its workforce was necessary to preserve the sustainability of the company’s operations in Liberia.
Labor Minister Moses Kollie disagreed, stating that the company has not provided any convincing instrument to the ministry to grant its request.
Rep. Tibelrosa Tarponweh(District No. 1, Margibi County) who authored the communication to invite the management said Liberia has valued Firestone but it has failed to give back to Liberians. He called on plenary to stop the company for implementing its planed action.
Several other lawmakers including Representatives Edward Karfia of Bong County, Ellen Attoh, Ben Fofana, Ivar Jones all of Margibi, along with Mariamu Fofana and Clarence Massaquoi of Lofa County also condemned the company’s decision.
The workforce reduction comes as Margibi, where Firestone Liberia is headquartered is bracing for what is poised to be a hotly-contested midterm Senatorial elections with enormous implications for the county. The ruling, Coalition for Democratic Change’s government, is hoping to slow down Firestone’s workforce reduction. But in the wake of uncontrollable ongoing economic downturn affecting countries and multinational companies around the world, it is unclear how much of a leeway Firestone would be able to maneuver.
Several major international tire companies including Bridgestone were forced to shut down manufacturing plants in North America and Latin America in March due to COVID-19 as tire and automotive service shops took a beating because of reduced traffic and sales at retail tire dealerships and auto repair shops during the pandemic which also impacted some tire wholesale businesses.